Unity and Pride: Reflections on Parshat Vay’chi
by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
Few things are more satisfying than a great Midrash, an interpretive gloss that addresses a question left open by the notoriously spare style in which the Torah is written. A Midrash that elucidates a particularly poignant moment in this week’s parashah, Vay’chi, is sheer genius in the way it brings one of our most famous texts to bear, seamlessly, on a wholly unrelated part of our national narrative. It is far and away my favorite Midrash.
Though this week’s Torah reading is called “And he lived,” the two central moments are the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob’s death is monumental. In addition to being the end of the patriarchal era, when God’s relationship was carried through one person, it also leaves the remaining Israelites – Jacob’s son – in a precarious position with regard to each other as the one thing they have in common and value, their father, is no more. Before he dies he offers “blessings” to each of his sons. In the moment before those blessings he calls these men – nearly all of whom we can assume are already grandfathers – to his bed, saying: “Come together and listen [to me], sons of Jacob” (49:2).
The Rabbis take Jacob’s use of the word “listen” – שמעו/shim’u – and connect it to the most famous verse that utilizes this root in the entire Torah. Here is the text (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35):
When did Israel first merit to be given the Sh’ma? From the moment that Jacob lay down on his deathbed, calling to all the tribes [i.e., his sons] and said to them: “Come together and listen/שמע, sons of Jacob.” What did he mean by this? He meant “From the moment I pass from the world you will bow down to another God.” And they answered him:
שמע ישראל/sh’ma yisrael/Listen [to us] Israel [i.e., Jacob/dad]
יהוה אלהינו/adonai eloheinu/Adonai is our God
יהוה אחד/adonai echad/only Adonai
Jacob’s situation, and his children’s response, should resonate with us. Jacob immigrates to be with his children in what, for the ancient world, was the “goldineh medinah,” the equivalent of the United States a little more than a hundred years ago, a country where the streets were allegedly paved with gold. Imagine Jacob as the grandfather from Eastern Europe who follows his children into a foreign country and watches as dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren are born who will never know the Promised Land as their own. He watches as his entire family learns to speak a new language and assimilate into a new culture while his favorite son serves as second-in-command to Pharoah, the king/god of the sun.
Jacob’s anxiety is real: what will become of my family? My inheritance? The relationship my grandfather established and my father continued with the One God? God has not identified a single successor to take the mantle from me, so how will this work once I’m gone?
Surrounding him, the Rabbis imagine that the founders of all twelve tribes respond as one with the closest thing our religion has to a creed, one that, through some clever linguistic gymnastics, perfectly fits the moment. The boys say, effectively: “Dad, listen to us! Your God – Adonai – is our God too! Not just our God but the only God we’ll worship!” And with that assurance, Jacob passes peacefully into the next world.
Tragically and shockingly, in January 2020 it’s impossible for me to read this Midrash without thinking that one of its messages is that Jewish unity – the miracle of all twelve sons speaking as one – most often comes at moments of extreme existential anxiety for our survival. While here the concern is for spiritual survival, today we grapple with a resurgence of violence against Jewish property, Jewish institutions, and – most frighteningly – Jewish bodies. The ultra-Orthodox world was almost wiped out by the Nazis, who did not distinguish between the secular Jews of Berlin and Vienna and the Hasidism of Galicia. Some of the survivors of the Holocaust were witness to the attack in Monsey; my blood freezes in my attempt to imagine how that moment could shatter nearly seventy-five years of a much different narrative of America.
I wholly identify as an American Jew, believing wholeheartedly in the 2500 year history of Judaism gaining from and giving to the majority culture in which we live. For solid historical reasons, I believe America is the greatest one of those communities in which we have lived, and see myself blessed for being a fourth generation American. The events of the last few weeks and, let’s be honest, the ascending cultural currents of Anti-Semitism over the previous years, are challenging my sense of safety here and remind me, chillingly, that nothing lasts forever.
As my friend and colleague Rabbi Ethan Linden, Director of Ramah in the Berkshires, wrote over Chanukah, our response to Anti-Semitism must be like our response to darkness during the holiday: to combat darkness not by sliding into it but by rejecting it brightly in our windows. At Ramah in Wisconsin and Ramah Day Camp we do many things: we give children the joy of summer camp, we nurture friendships and feelings of belonging, we thoughtfully meet campers where they are developmentally, and we immerse them in holistic and contemporary idioms of Jewish living. Additionally – and there is much more I could list – we also inculcate in them something they often don’t even know they possess, Jewish pride.
Education must always be contextual, and we must pivot to respond to the events around us. That work will begin in earnest in June, in the intentional and thought-provoking ways you’ve come to expect from us. In the meantime, in the face of a threat which fundamentally fears the other, let’s embrace who we are and find ways to come together with that pride on display. We may even find a moment to proudly proclaim the fundamental statement of our Judaism: sh’ma yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad.